Constantine Dabbagh, Executive Secretary of the NECC. (photo: Miriam Sushman)
Construction is under way at Shati camp for a new playground, built by the Pontifical Mission. (photo: Miriam Sushman)
President of Atfaluna Society for the Deaf, Geraldine Shawa. (photo: Miriam Sushman)
Palestinians return from market. (photo: Miriam Sushman)
A talented Atfaluna graduate Mohsen Mustaha adjusts a hearing aid. (photo: Miriam Sushman)
A sewing instructor assists a student at a NECC-funded vocational school in Gaza. (photo: Miriam Sushman)
Midwife Arifah Aish performs an ultrasound exam on an expectant mother. (photo: Miriam Sushman)
Aymon Shalabieh is a student at the Vocational School in Gaza. (photo: Miriam Sushman)
At 18 months, Mohsen Mustaha contracted meningitis and suddenly stopped speaking. Drawing on their meager resources, his parents took Mohsen from Gaza to nearby Egypt for a medical evaluation. The diagnosis: Severe hearing loss and possible brain damage.
Since there were no schools for the deaf in Gaza at the time, the Mustahas sent Mohsen to a regular elementary school. Living in a world of silence, he was unable to communicate or understand the lessons. After three or four years of academic failure and utter social isolation, he was asked to leave and was subsequently sent to a facility for the mentally handicapped.
It was not until the age of 12 that Mohsen found the help he so desperately needed. In 1992, six Gaza women founded the Atfaluna Society for the Deaf, the first school and training center for the hearing impaired in Gaza. Much of the funding for the complex – which can accommodate only a small percentage of the 20,000 hearing-impaired children and adults in the area – comes from Christian organizations.
Mohsen’s parents brought him to Atfaluna and begged for their son’s admission.
“Our hearts really wept for him,” recalled Geraldine Shawa, the president of the society. “He had received no real education and he couldn’t read or write. We had just opened our doors and had programs only for kindergartners and those in first grade. It was a dilemma.”
“We couldn’t turn him away,” said Shawa, a Chicago native who has lived in Gaza for 30 years. “We couldn’t make up for all the years of neglect, but we taught him what we could and helped him learn a trade.”
“Before coming to Atfaluna I couldn’t read or write, use sign language or read lips,” said Mohsen, now 19 and an expert in molding hearing aids. Interviewed in the society’s air-conditioned, state-of-the-art hearing-aid laboratory, with Shawa interpreting his rapid hand signals, the self-possessed young man admitted, “learning these things at such a late age was very difficult. Math was especially hard.”
So hard that Mohsen dropped out of school temporarily to work as a manual laborer. “I begged my father to bring me back to school,” he stated. “This is a much better life. Working here, in a respected profession that I enjoy, I feel alive.”
Mohsen might never have received an education were it not for the assistance provided to Atfaluna by Christian organizations, including CNEWA’s operating agency for the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission.
Although the population of Gaza is almost exclusively Muslim, Christians around the world have opened their hearts to the Strip’s impoverished residents. Christian-sponsored projects and programs are actively improving the lives of numerous people living on the edge of hopelessness.
Many factors contribute to the sense of despair in Gaza, which Israel captured from Egypt in 1967. Although the Oslo Peace Accords granted civil control of Palestinian areas to the Palestinian Authority, Israel is still in charge of overall security and decides who can enter and leave the area.
Overcrowding is a tremendous problem; 1.2 million residents live within just 84 square miles, making this narrow stretch of land one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Few of the roads are paved and due to inadequate sewage and garbage disposal, untreated refuse and rotting food line most streets. Unemployment hovers around 60 percent. Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., CNEWA’s Regional Director for Palestine, Israel and Cyprus, says that the difficult conditions exacerbate problems within a family.
“Gaza families are under tremendous tension. The school dropout rate among teenagers is high. There are a great many problems,” he added.
The Pontifical Mission has tried to ease the burden for more than four decades. Among the many projects it has supported are the Gaza School for the Blind, which it co-founded in 1961 with United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA); a parish school operated by the Rosary Sisters; a home for severely disabled children, staffed by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity; Atfaluna; and a playground, now nearing completion at the edge of a dusty refugee camp that is home for thousands of children. Until now, the children’s leisure time has been spent running around barefoot along the camp’s glass-littered roads and alleys.
Father Guido believes it is only fitting for Christians to help Gazans, despite the fact that less than 2,500 of Gaza’s residents are Christian. “When people are in need, you help them. Our mandate is need, not creed. As a result, we want to do what we can. Caring knows no borders.”
In Gaza, the Pontifical Mission provides grants to the Near East Council of Churches (NECC), which in turn uses the money – along with other grants – to fund vital projects.
“Jesus did not help only Christians,” noted Constantine Dabbagh, Executive Secretary of the council’s Committee for Refugee Work. “This is the Holy Land where Jesus started his mission. It is natural for Christians to witness in this part of the world.”
Two examples of Christian outreach are the Darraj and Shija’ia clinics, located in two of the most underprivileged neighborhoods in Gaza City. Both provide pre- and postnatal care as well as general healthcare to approximately 9,500 families. Despite the pressing need for additional health centers, the NECC was recently forced to close two other clinics due to lack of funding.
At the Darraj clinic, on Well-Baby Day, dozens of mothers in traditional Muslim head scarves and long dresses entertain fidgety infants waiting for checkups. Several women have older children in tow. Pregnant women wait in another corridor. A third waiting area is reserved for patients suffering from everything from gastrointestinal distress and colds to diabetes and cancer.
Eager to teach Gaza residents the rudiments of preventative health care, the medical staff has hung posters, some hand-made, detailing the dangers of leaving small children unattended and the health risks of unrefrigerated food. They encourage breast-feeding, good hygiene, especially when handling food or changing a baby, and proper overall nutrition – not an easy task for those who live in poverty.
“There is no real sewage system here,” explained clinic director Dr. Ahmed Mattar. “Most children have parasites and gastroenteritis is rampant. There’s a lot of pneumonia. Right now we’re in the middle of a meningitis outbreak.”
The two remaining clinics, as well as a mobile dental unit, provide a vital service.
“No one in Gaza is accepted to the government clinic without insurance and people here can’t afford that,” said Dr. Mattar. “We charge just $1.50 per visit, a minimal fee.” The Pontifical Mission provides 25 percent of the clinic’s operating costs.
Ibrahim Gandor, a NECC administrator, says that the clinics try to maintain a six-month supply of medications. On the occasions that Israel imposes a security closure, “nothing gets in and nothing gets out,” Ibrahim asserts. “We need a supply in case of emergencies. Stocks here run out much faster than at government clinics.”
“The Gaza birthrate of 6.9 is the highest in the world,” explained Dr. Salim El-Abadalla. “Those who qualify as Palestinian refugees receive health care from UNRWA, and government workers receive insurance from the Palestinian Authority. A few people can afford private insurance. Those who come to the clinics, however, would otherwise fall through the cracks.
“They’re not refugees so they’re not looked after by the United Nations. Most of the men are day laborers in Israel or Gaza and don’t receive any health insurance.”
One of the most important services provided by the clinics is home visits, especially after the birth of a child.
“We often discover problems, such as unsanitary toilets or improper food storage, by seeing the family at home,” added Dr. El-Abadalla.
“We focus especially on the women because they are the ones who run the family. It’s a question of building trust.”
These efforts have paid off. In 1993, 30 percent of Gazan mothers delivered their babies at home, with all the risks this practice entailed. Today, 90 percent deliver in local hospitals.
Fadwa Ghazal brought her five-year-old daughter, Deena, to the clinic for a sore throat. Fadwa is particularly grateful for the home visits. “A nurse and midwife come before and after every birth,” said the 34-year-old mother of eight. “If it weren’t for this clinic, I’d be forced to go to the government clinic.”
For Shifa El-Khalili, a 48-year-old woman with diabetes and high blood pressure, the Darraj clinic has also been a godsend.
“I’ve been bringing my family here for more than 20 years,” Shifa declared. “I used to go to the government clinic, but it’s far away. Here, the medicines I need are always available.
“Several years ago,” Shifa continued, “my daughter was suffering from a high fever. In addition to giving her an antibiotic, the nurse told me to put her in a cold bath to bring the fever down. It worked. Now I do this for all my children.”
Father Guido stresses that Christian organizations work hard to foster this sense of empowerment and not only in health matters.
“NECC’s goal is to help people become knowledgeable and self-sufficient, to the best of their ability. it’s very important that the young people here learn a trade. At least then they’ll be able to earn a living later.”
The three vocational schools run by the NECC, the oldest of which has been operating for almost 40 years, train teenage boys in a variety of trades.
“My father asked me to learn a trade,” said 16-year-old Ayman Shalabiyah, one of seven children from a poor Gaza City family. “I picked carpentry because I like working with wood. I hope to have my own workshop some day.”
After studying from 7:30 A.M. to 2 P.M., Ayman interns at a local shop.
“Our students are motivated,” said carpentry instructor Darweesh Abu Eloaf as he watched a roomful of young students build cabinets and other wood items.
“Most of the boys who come here are either dropouts or don’t have the ability for a conventional education. Without a school like this, they’d be out on the streets. Our graduates have no difficulty finding jobs.”
Competition is also fierce at the Vocational School for Girls, where 150 applicants vie for 70 slots. Here girls and young women learn sewing and secretarial and administrative skills.
Older Gazans benefit from NECC’s work programs, which provide both a small income and a sense of self-worth. Through the Self-Help Clothing Project, about a dozen women, most of whom are primary breadwinners, sew vocational-school uniforms as well as garments that are distributed to needy families.
“I come here six days a week,” said Fatiya Kuhal, who earns $100 per month sewing garments.
A 65-year-old refugee and widow who lives with her son, Fatiya receives some assistance from UNRWA, “but it is not enough,” she declared. “The $100 that I make per month doing piecework doesn’t last long, but it helps. It’s better than taking handouts from people, and it’s a good place to socialize.”
Another income-generating project, the Sewing Cooperative, provides not only advanced training but also employment to young women. Most of the current crop of participants, who earn according to how much they produce, come from refugee families.
Though the cooperative’s accommodations are modest, with little room for their dozen or so seamstresses, the atmosphere is energized and upbeat. Whether sitting at their sewing machines or poring over fashion and bridal magazines, it is clear the women receive satisfaction from having a career as well as the respect and independence it brings.
“Before coming here I worked in the local job market for eight years,” said Manal El-Hafia, 27. “Here the work conditions are better and the machines are more modern.”
Pointing to a clothes rack filled with elegant evening dresses, she singles out the sequined “mother-of-the bride” dress she has just completed and says, “Our prices are higher because the quality of our work is very high. The NECC cooperative has a lot of prestige.”
In keeping with Muslim tradition, the cooperative employs only women, “something that makes my family happy,” declared El-Halifa. “My family prefers that I deal only with women.”
“We are very careful to abide by the culture of the local population,” says Araxi Waheed, a council committee member. “Among Gaza Arabs, the traditions of Muslims and Christians are quite similar.”
While it is true that Gaza Christians share with their Muslim counterparts a strong bond born from suffering and deprivation, the tiny minority of Christians strives to maintain its own identity against almost impossible odds.
“Many Holy Land Christians have emigrated since the 1940’s,” explained Daoud Azzar, a Gaza Christian intimately connected to the Near East Council of Churches. “Many went overseas. Others moved to the West Bank.”
Azzar, originally from Jaffa (now in Israel) became a refugee during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Like many refugees, he spent the time immediately after the war in a tent provided by Quakers. In the 1950’s, the Catholic Church was able to procure land for displaced Christians. This small neighborhood, at the edge of the Shati refugee camp, is still known as the Christian Camp.
Seated in his well-kept courtyard in the Christian Camp, a crucifix hanging in the stairwell, Azzar says the small indigenous community “receives no outside help. I myself live on my pension from the NECC.” Many others receive no pension at all.
“We are at the end of our strength,” Abuna (Father) Emanuel, pastor of the local Latin Catholic parish, said simply. “We are of very few numbers.” In a plea to overseas Christians for assistance, he added, “We need help to offer spiritual and educational assistance to Gaza Christians.”
Difficult though their lives are, the Christian population places a high premium on education and spares no expense to send its young people to the best schools and universities. Most of their parents are jewelers, tailors, watch repairers.
Azzar says that he is “proud” of the financial support and health care provided by the NECC. Christianity, he says, “calls for helping people. We established several workshops that have trained young men and women for meaningful careers. I believe the Muslims are grateful for this.”
Geraldine Shawa, director of the Atfaluna Society for the Deaf, shares this view.
“I’m very proud, very happy, to see the spirit of the church at work in Gaza. People realize that giving is the best example.”
Michele Chabin is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.